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OR Teachers Rally at Capitol to Oppose Retirement Reform

Oregon lawmakers have been grappling with the state's public employees' retirement system debt since the 2008 recession. (Chris Phan/Flickr)
Oregon lawmakers have been grappling with the state's public employees' retirement system debt since the 2008 recession. (Chris Phan/Flickr)
May 22, 2019

SALEM, Ore. – Oregon educators are gathering on the Capitol steps today (Wednesday) to oppose a bill that would make changes to the Public Employees Retirement System.

One of the biggest concerns for public employees about Senate Bill 1049 is it cuts money from PERS members' retirement accounts, resulting in a 7% to 12% reduction of that account. The bill moved out of committee on Tuesday.

PERS has a $27 billion unfunded liability and Oregon lawmakers have wrestled with the issue since the 2008 recession wrecked the state's economy.

Lindsay Ray, a high-school math teacher in Beaverton, describes the constant calls for cuts to PERS as demoralizing.

"The public perception of PERS and this kind of vilifying of public-sector workers is really challenging when you're trying to break into the field, and you want to be a public servant," Ray laments.

Ray says she loves teaching, but also appreciates her great retirement benefits. She adds that public employees shouldn't be responsible for paying down investment losses from the recession a decade ago.

Supporters of SB 1049 say it could save the state money in the long run.

Educators are meeting at the State Capitol at 2:00 p.m.

According to analysis by the Oregon Center for Public Policy, educators in the state earn about 22% less per week than their private-sector peers. However, if benefits are factored in, that gap narrows to about 9% less.

Patty Wentz, a spokesperson for the PERS Coalition, says it isn't fair to make public employees pay down a debt they didn't create.

According to Wentz, retirement benefits are a big incentive to work in the public sector. She notes that changes to PERS more than 15 years ago actually resulted in many public employees choosing to retire.

"One of the problems that Oregon has is, more than 30% of people in public service today are eligible to retire," Wentz explains. "And in 2003, when we had the big overhaul of PERS, we had double the retirements in one year. So, it was a real problem."

Ray adds teachers were excited about passage of the Student Success Act, which will raise $1 billion per year through a one-half-percent tax on Oregon's wealthiest businesses. But now, that excitement is dissipating.

"It's kind of a slap in the face, right after the governor signed the Student Success Act," Ray says. "Educators have been riding on this high and it's just this kind of roller coaster of emotions to then turn around and have those very same supporters pull the rug out from under us on PERS."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR